Navigating the Holidays with Food Allergies & Health Conditions

Navigating the Holidays with Food Allergies & Health Conditions

Navigating the holidays with food allergies and health conditions can bring a little anxiety to the season, whether you’re the one with a dietary restriction or not.

Navigating the holidays with food allergies and health conditions can bring a little anxiety to the season, whether you're the one with a dietary restriction or not. 

If you are someone who has a food allergy, food sensitivity, medical condition, or any other reason where you avoid specific foods, this post is for you. I am you.

If you are someone who knows and feeds someone with a food allergy, food sensitivity, medical condition, or any other reason where they avoid specific foods, this post is for you. Your job isn’t easy, but my hope is that you walk away with a little more understanding of what it’s like for those of us who do have to avoid specific foods and why it can make us a little anxious – and why you shouldn’t take offense to it.

Food Should be Simple – But Often Isn’t

I recently saw a popular dietitian influencer on Instagram blasting a press release she got about how to have a gluten-free Thanksgiving. She was clearly agitated and annoyed (the press release did sound pretty baseless and borderline unintelligent), arguing in her stories that it doesn’t have to be that complicated – turkey is naturally gluten-free! Mashed potatoes are naturally gluten-free! How annoying!

But actually? This isn’t always the case. Yes – food should be simple. Absolutely! What we eat should be so simple and straightforward that turkeys and everything else that should be gluten-free is gluten-free, no question.

But that’s not the case.

I remember the first year that my husband and I hosted Thanksgiving. Both of our families were coming and we were so excited! I was at one store looking at turkeys on sale and placed one in my cart, then realized I should check the ingredients, just in case. Shockingly, I found that the turkey had fillers, and not just any fillers but fillers that contained wheat products, too. I was floored! Fortunately, I found another turkey on sale at another store but again – turkey shopping wasn’t as simple as it should have been.

It’s Hard to Trust that Others Are as Diligent with Labels, Ingredients, and Safe Preparation as You Are (Because No One EVER Is)

When you have food allergies and health conditions and have to be diligent about what you’re consuming, it can be hard to trust that others are being as constantly diligent in examining labels, ingredients, and food preparation as you are. Because no one EVER is.

Even my own husband – he is a total food allergy pro after over a decade of marriage. But there was a time recently where he was out running errands and grabbed a Larabar for a snack. We have Larabars in our house – just not the ones that contain the nuts I’m allergic to. He just grabbed a flavor that looked good, left the wrapper in his shorts, and I touched it when I was doing laundry that day. Nothing terrible happened; I just washed my hands vigorously, washed the laundry twice, and avoided kissing him for a few more hours and several tooth brushings. 😉 But it just illustrates the point that it’s difficult for anyone to be “on” 24/7, no matter how experienced they’ve become.

My Experience Navigating Holidays with a Life-Threatening Food Allergy

I remember one of the first holidays I celebrated with my husband’s family; nuts seemed to be EVERYWHERE! From the pecan trees in his grandmother’s backyard to a bowl of pecans and other mixed nuts for snacking to nut-laden desserts to sweet potato pecan casserole to hazelnut coffee brewed after dinner and more.

Honestly, it was a bit overwhelming! I felt like I needed to be on high alert 24/7. But it wasn’t really their fault – they didn’t understand how severe allergies can be and the threat they posed to me. I certainly don’t know if I would realize the lengths people need to go with their food with some allergies and medical conditions if I didn’t experience it myself.

You Can’t Just “Eat Around” an Allergen

With major food allergies and medical conditions, you can’t just “eat around” the offending food or “scrape it off”. You can’t “just try it.” You can’t “just trust me,” that a food is completely safe. Oftentimes you can’t even just eat the other foods, because you need to consider cross contamination and food preparation practices (i.e. if someone was kneading and dusting rolls with flour right next to someone else slicing green beans, those green beans could now be contaminated and cause problems for someone with Celiac disease).

In fact, that particular holiday spent with my husband’s family sent my husband and I to a CVS for Benedryl instead of Christmas dinner. Our best guess was someone was eating pecans that were set out, then eating from the fresh veggies and the oils from the nuts got on the baby carrots I was munching.

There’s been countless other times. The time a family member said the cookies on their counter were nut-free when the first bite I took was straight into a huge piece of walnut. All the times hazelnut coffee has been brewed after a meal and I’ve had to excuse myself and used that time to go outside to call other family members and wish them happy holidays – all the while others think I’m just being rude by leaving to go talk on the phone outside, not understanding that even brewing hazelnut coffee is making my eyes water and itch, my sinuses flair, my throat and tongue scratchy, etc.

There are so many examples – holiday parties, work parties, family parties, and pretty much every and any social gathering that involves food. It can be incredibly difficult to navigate these situations when you have foods you need to avoid for medical reasons, including the possibility of life or death situations.

You Don’t Need to Have an Allergy to Avoid a Food

And for the record? It’s not just people with severe food allergies that this affects. I think severe allergies that induce anaphylaxis can be easier for some to understand because they truly can quickly be very black or white – life or death.

There are so many reasons and medical conditions that exist where certain foods need to be carefully moderated or restricted to avoid significant complications,  including hospitalizations and even death. While every individual will have specific needs, here are a few examples:

  • Renal Failure: foods high in phosphorus, potassium, and sodium may need to be moderated. Protein intake may need to be carefully monitored. Fluids may need to be restricted.
  • Heart Disease and Failure: sodium and fat intake may need to be monitored; fluids may need to be restricted.
  • Celiac Disease: gluten must be eliminated, along with any wheat derivatives and foods cross-contaminated.
  • Gastroparesis: avoid foods higher in fat and fiber; may not be able to tolerate larger meals and do better with smaller more frequent meals.
  • Diabetes: may need to carefully monitor carbohydrate intake. Things like serving your friend sweet tea instead of tea sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners could have extreme consequences if they’re unaware.
  • Pregnancy: need to be cautious of things like imported soft cheeses that may not be made with pasteurized dairy, raw fish, alcohol, etc.

The list could truly go on and on, but the point is this:

Food choices are personal. 

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter the reasoning behind someone’s choices. Maybe they’re avoiding more fried foods and a larger Thanksgiving meal because they are listening to their body and that’s what makes them feel their best. Maybe they’re eating differently because they have a new medical condition they’re trying to manage. Maybe they prefer to avoid decadent desserts because they feel the trade off of being able to live a lifestyle healthier for them and lower their Hgb A1c without medications and no longer be pre-diabetic is more important to them than eating that piece of cake. Maybe they’re allergic to the pecans in the pecan pie and would prefer not to die within minutes. Maybe they just found out they’re pregnant and they’re eating “weird” trying to manage food aversions and nausea, but they’re not ready to share their pregnancy yet.

Don’t Allow Media Headlines to Make You Feel Bad About What Works For You

I want to also note the many health headlines you see this time of year. You can see headlines with anything from ways to cut calories on Thanksgiving dinner to how to experience food freedom and enjoy all foods without guilt.

There can be validity behind many headlines you see, but it’s important to decipher them to see if and how they apply to you. Oftentimes the individuals espousing no need for anxiety or guilt around holiday eating are privileged to not have any reason not to eat anything they want. They may not know what it’s like to have a heightened sense of anxiety because someone new is preparing a holiday meal and you feel like you’re going to just have to cross your fingers and say a prayer when you take a bite that you’ll be okay and not hear those dreaded words, “oh wait, I forgot this contained ____” when you go into a reaction.

Part of food freedom is knowing your body and what works from you. And whether that means eating smaller portions, skipping dessert, avoiding alcohol, or anything else – only you are responsible for your food choices.

You Are Not Alone

If you are someone who modifies your food choices based on allergies, sensitivities, medical conditions, or however makes you feel your best – I see you, I understand you, I am you. You have permission to do what works for you, no matter if it works for anyone else and what their opinions may be.

And remember – this is obviously highly personal for you, but don’t take it personally if someone accidentally cross-contaminated your food or your options are limited. Bring your own options. Eat normally throughout the day. Bring snacks you can have in case options are severely limited. You know the drill. 😉

If You Have Friends & Family That Avoid Certain Foods:

If you are someone who is cooking for or dining with someone who modifies their food choices based on allergies, sensitivities, medical conditions – here are a few things you can do:

  • Try to understand as best you possibly can. Ask questions (sans judgement).
  • Create a menu beforehand and make sure your guest will have food options they can choose from. Depending on the person, some individuals with restrictions may enjoy being part of the menu creation process.
  • Invite your guest to bring any dishes they would like to make.
  • If the person with food restrictions offers to host, consider it. It will likely go a long way in making them feel more comfortable when they can control the food ingredients and preparation in a safe environment.
  • Consider your words. Hopefully this is obvious, but don’t be rude or make snide comments. Don’t create drama. Don’t call attention to their differences.
  • If your guest brings food that is safe for them to consume, please don’t proclaim how gross it looks and you’re glad you don’t have to eat that. Be gracious.
  • Don’t take offense. We’ll probably be asking to see recipes and ingredient labels on foods used. Even if you feel like you were super diligent, please don’t take it personally that we want to double-check. We’re all responsible for what we put in our mouths, but when you’re the one that has to deal with the consequences of consuming your restricted food, it brings that responsibility to new heights. Honestly, half the time we’ll feel worse about it than you do because we can see you getting bummed if we don’t end up eating something you thought you prepared safely. It’s not personal!

Food Can Be Important, But It’s Not Everything

And for everyone, my best advice is try to enjoy the holiday and season as best you can. Food can seem like a huge part of holidays, celebrations, and many traditions (decorating Christmas cookies, hot chocolate, latkes, wedding cake, etc.), but it’s really about coming together, sharing experiences as a family, and making memories.

Happy holidays everyone!

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I'm Lindsey! I'm passionate about helping you find healthy habits and nutrition that fit your life - not the other way around!

by LINDSEY JANEIRO, RDN, CLT